Free and open source software is provided at zero cost but the word "free" does not refer to the cost of the software. "Free" refers to the fact that everyone has freedom to use the software for their benefit. The freedom to use, study, copy, modify, distribute are granted to everyone and is protected through an enforceable legal license.
When I first heard the free software concept I thought the idea was ridiculous. In a society where competition is fierce and virtually everything is for sale, I wondered why anyone would give away the intellectual ownership for their software. This is why the existence of billions of dollars of public domain software seems unbelievable. However, free software is not only available; it is maintained, updated and supported at no cost.
The stated goal of the free software movement is to protect the freedom and liberty of the individual. The theory is that computing controls so much of our lives that to control technology is to control access to rights such as privacy, free speech and self-defense.
"As our society grows more dependent on computers, the software we run is of critical importance to securing the future of a free society. Free software is about having control over the technology we use in our homes, schools and businesses, where computers work for our individual and communal benefit" Free Software Foundation
Free software advocates argue that in a computer dependent society we cannot protect our basic freedoms without control of technology. The goal of the free software license is to ensure that everyone has commercial and creative rights to that software. The primary restrictions for free software licenses have the goal of ensuring that neither the software nor its derivatives become non-free.
Free software advocates also argue that visibility and cooperative development improve the quality of products and enhance the advancement of technology. They believe that increasing the size of the group that understands and has access to software increases the opportunity for innovation and error detection.
The evidence of the last 30 years supports the success of the free software methodology and philosophy. The existence and scope of free software has continued to grow and it is utilized globally for some of the most mission critical applications. Free software is a dominate technology for the internet and powers everything from android phones to nuclear submarines. The value of free software is estimated in the billions and it generates billions in revenues annually for hardware, support and consulting services.
Society has and continues to benefit greatly from free software. It has produced jobs and is the foundation technology for many of the most important online services that we utilize every day. More importantly, the software continues to be owned by everyone and continues to offer tremendous opportunity for personal and societal gain.
The open source story is one of great accomplishment in practical terms. It includes the creation of innovative technical products, services and frameworks as well as substantial and long term economic impact and opportunity. However, the most impressive aspect of open source is the example that it provides for paradigm change.
The free software movement rightly recognizes that control is needed to maintain freedom and liberty. It is also correct in understanding that changing technology dictates changes in our thinking in order to maintain our core values. Software, gun control and with the allocation of wealth in society are a few among many areas where technology changes may modify long held positions.
Because of technology changes the right to “keep” and bear arms does not mean what it once did and the definition may continue to change as weapons like hand held "nukes" could become a reality. Society must adjust and that adjustment will sometimes require reorientation or our priorities.
The free software movement provides concrete evidence that with the right mindset and framework, individuals working together can protect their freedom and create the economic impact needed to provide them with control.
The model starts with the idea of collective ownership and protection for things needed to guarantee our rights and freedom. In the case of software that meant protecting the rights to use, access, share and modify the software. To protect our personal freedom we must control enough resources to provide everyone with sustenance and freedom of opinion and expression.
The model provided by open source may not translate perfectly for all situations where we need to protect our rights but there should be something to gain for considering a successful model. Protecting our rights to life and liberty (in general) is not necessarily the same as protecting the rights to software but there are relevant analogies in terms of issues and concepts. In both situations, society needs to make adjustments to protect human rights and ensure that control remains in the hands of the people.
The history and success of open source shows us that small adjustments can have major impacts. It demonstrates that putting the collective rights first does not require the destruction of competition, loss of innovation or the elimination of profit. To the contrary, the evidence supports the opposite position. Free software is of the highest quality, extremely innovative and is increasing its use and market share for critical services in governments, businesses and major institutions globally.
The capability to learn, use and profit from free software provides an unparalleled opportunity for anyone that chooses to leverage it. More people need to understand the free software philosophy and the economic opportunity provided by free software.
The foundation of the free software philosophy and movement is a world view. This is the belief that the right path for society is to share knowledge and work together to ensure freedom and prosperity. However, that freedom requires control. Those who believe and contribute to the free software movement are not fighting against anything or anyone. They believe in a concept and are active participants in a community that builds, shares, learns, teaches and leverage.
There is a lot to learn from the free software movement and philosophy. The problems, solutions and history have significance and application beyond software. The opportunity provided by free software should not be ignored. Neither should the philosophy.